Why do we go to the movies? A broad question, to be sure, and one with wildly varying answers depending on whom you ask. Some go to be entertained, others to experience that elusive quality known as Art. But I believe that no matter what prompts our visits to the theater, the majority of filmgoers stay to see some representation of life on the screen. If we cannot connect, then the movie-watching experience is hollow—it will disappear in our memory, even if we enjoyed it at the time. So movies give us protagonists we can relate to, give them struggles that parallel ours (although they may just be a little bit grander). In the main character we see an idealized version of ourselves, someone we strive to be, someone we think we already are. In their life we see a dramatized version of our own—each of us like to believe that our conflicts are important, that we are the protagonists in our own movie. And many of movies (some of them great) give just that to us.
A Separation is not one of those movies. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, this Iranian picture engages the audience in a much more visceral way. Gone is any semblance of black and white—Farhadi presents us with a world full of greys. We can’t even imagine what a happy ending might entail; no matter what happens, somebody who doesn’t deserve it is going to get hurt.
A Separation tells two stories, seamlessly interwoven. One is a manslaughter case, as compelling as any courtroom drama I’ve ever seen. If all that this movie had going for it was the intricate web of this plotline it would be special—the twists and turns (both ethical and legal) had me pulling at my hair out of sheer stress. The moral tangles are such that I suspect not even Peter Singer could figure them out, and to see these characters attempt to navigate them was gut-wrenching in the most literal sense of the world. This movie connects to its audience (or at the very least to me) in a way that makes the connection found in other films seem trite. Gone is the hero’s journey, gone is the epic tale of great men and women; in it’s place is a stark portrait of real people in a real situation showing just how difficult life can be.
But the emotional core of the film is the tale of three individuals: Simin (played by Leila Hatami), a woman who wants to leave behind Iran for a better life, Nader (Peyman Maadi) a man who won’t leave his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) behind, and Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), the eleven-year-old daughter who doesn’t care where the family ends up as long as they remain together. The movie opens with Simin trying (and failing) to get a divorce so that she and Termeh could leave the country without Nader’s approval. (Noteworthy is the judge’s dismissal of Simin’s complaint as unimportant—the movie is not about gender roles in Iran but they are hard to ignore). Simin accuses Nader of sacrificing his daughter’s future for a man who may not “even realize you are his son,” but Nader counters, “I know he is my father!” Simin leaves and moves in with her parents, unwilling to leave the country without custody of Termeh.
The interplay between Nader and Termeh provides many of the movie’s most sweetly tender (and occasionally humorous) moments. Nader’s attempts at being a single father recall Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, but there’s also something deeper to it—Nader actively empowers his daughter to be smart, autonomous, and mature, and it is clear that she is more capable than most Western girls her age. The decisions she must make throughout the movie, both regarding her father’s court case and her parent’s eponymous separation, are easily the most heartbreaking. Each is more difficult than the last, and the film never tells us how she answers her final question.
As I was leaving the screening room, moved to the point of speechlessness and nursing a pit of anxiety in my stomach so strong I thought I might have gastroenteritis, I overheard someone complain about this lack of closure. But to whoever was walking behind me and treating child custody like the top in Inception, there is no comfort to be taken in either outcome. Neither choice could possibly give us any sense of resolution. The only place we can find solace is in the fact that Termeh herself is making the decision—no one tries to make it for her, no one tries to sway her or bribe her, and she is permitted to determine her own future. Not only that, but this special child is fully capable of doing so.
She inherits this strength from her supportive father and her determined mother; Simin is an independent woman who refuses to be held back by her loosely-draped hijab. She serves as a glaring contrast to Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the caretaker of Nader’s father, a deeply religious woman who cloaks everything but her face and her faith in long black robes and lives in fear of her god and her husband. The image of Razieh walking, her robes flowing in the wind, couldn’t help but invoke Batman in my mind. But how lonely and afraid Batman appears when without a purpose, how timid in broad daylight. Razieh is naïve and foolish, and causes everyone (including me) a lot of grief, but it is hard to blame her. The movie does not judge her although she begs to be judged. When Nader and Razieh come into conflict we may empathize with Nader, but we sympathize with Razieh.
After all, I subconsciously concluded, she must just be a function of her society. But I’m not so sure this was fair. The Iran of A Separation is somewhat modernized, and it also produced such strong women as Simin and Termeh. And while writer-director Farhadi got into trouble for some comments regarding censorship, his movie itself was embraced by the government. It was chosen to represent the country in the Academy Awards (where it will take home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, I assume). It even got a second Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a surprise given the Academy’s historic (and frankly rather xenophobic) bias against non-Hollywood endeavors. Luckily, this awards success along with critical acclaim (it boasts a 99% Rotten Tomatoes score, and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times has joined Dayton Martindale of the Nassau Weekly in calling it the best of 2011) has brought this film to at least a marginally wider audience.
I say luckily not only because it is a great film but because I am strongly of the opinion that US-Iran relations could use whatever help they can get right about now. And though the movie is about Iranians, fundamentally, it’s about people. My parents haven’t divorced, I’ve never been discriminated against for my gender, I don’t have relatives with Alzheimer’s, and I’ve never been unfairly accused of manslaughter, but these are human problems that know no national boundary. This intimate personal drama is something we can all relate to, and the mostly handheld camera makes us feel like we are there, that this could be our family. The fact that they speak in Persian doesn’t change this. (If anything, the language barrier only adds to the atmosphere of the movie—I have quite a primal reaction when tense people start yelling things I can’t understand). A lot of Americans see Iran as a backwards country, as a militant country, as the centerpiece to a new axis of evil, and maybe it is some of those things. But it is full of people like us living lives like us and facing obstacles like us. And this, I maintain, is the reason we go to the movies. We go for some picture of the human condition, something that brings us together, shows us that we are not alone, and reminds us that even when things are at their darkest, we can be strong.